Creating a culture of psychological safety around making mistakes isn’t just the preserve of Silicon Valley start-ups. Global organisations from multiple sectors could see the confidence and creativity of female talent soar—along with a healthy boost to the bottom line…
We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” So said Thomas Edison, the inventor whose light bulb compound trials reached five figures in his quest to bring illumination to the masses. It’s easy to see how such an attitude aided Edison in his lifetime achievement. But did he also strike upon the key ingredient of success in a broader sense? Yes, says Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who put his fellow engineer’s words of wisdom at the heart of his address to more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, investors and government officials at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in California.
“Never give up and keep building,” was Pichai’s key takeaway for delegates. It’s one he instils in his 72,000 global employees, who, collectively, make up what is arguably the world’s most creative, motivated and highly engaged workforce. At Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, such an attitude is even given a name: moonshot (a repackaging of ‘shoot for the moon’, meaning to aim for a lofty target). “You must reward people for failing,” says Astro Teller, the scientist behind Google’s ‘moonshot factory’, where engineers can test out their most audacious ideas without fear of reprisals. “If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation’s spirit.”
Dynamic and forward-thinking, Google nevertheless acknowledges that gender parity within its workforce remains a challenge and one it’s committed to tackling (hiring managers attend a bias-busting course, on which steps are taken to eliminate unconscious bias in recruitment of women, for example). Though progress has been steady since the tech giant began voluntarily publishing its diversity statistics, female inclusion remains low: 2016 records show that only 31% of Google’s current employees are female, a figure that falls to 19% when only technical roles are examined and 24% the leadership ranks.
Would such a ‘dare to fail’ culture have a similarly beneficial impact on an organisation with a greater proportion of female employees? Numerous studies have found that women are less prone to risk taking in the workplace , and an often quoted Hewlett Packard report sparked the term ‘the gender confidence gap’ after it was found that women put themselves forward for promotion only if they deem themselves to possess 100% of the requisite skills, versus a man’s 60%.
It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.
Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft
Its 2016 research found that female employees who were given motivational messages that failure is a necessary part of success, outperformed those given more neutral messages of encouragement. Tupperware claims its study establishes a link between confidence and women’s economic empowerment, but also to overall business success. In short, those women subjected to ‘failure is beneficial’ messages reported numerous career-boosting benefits: higher levels of self-confidence, increased productivity, innovation levels and degrees of entrepreneurship, greater optimism about life and the future, and increased likelihood of overcoming workplace challenges. But perhaps most striking of all were the financial implications to both individuals and the business overall: those same employees recruited on average 27% more sales representatives, and achieved 22% higher sales.
“A confident workforce is good for business,” concludes the report. “Increased confidence at Tupperware yields more productive recruiting efforts and greater numbers of total recruits, as well as more productive sales activity and greater total sales.” When the data was analysed by varying business units, geographic regions, and employee age, little variation was found—across the board, the average increase in worker confidence was 30%. This suggests that the conclusions could hold true for women in multiple industries and sectors, and that workplace confidence is more anchored in organisational culture than it is in levels of experience.
Awarding Pichai a big tick for his leadership credentials, the study cautions that it isn’t enough for line managers to instil the ‘failure is beneficial’ message in their teams: such a mandate must come from the top.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default.
Author J K Rowling, delivering a commencement speech to Harvard graduates
It’s a lesson that leaders are heeding. Esteemed professor of two doctorates, Johannes Haushofer, is such a fan of reflecting on past mistakes that he published on Twitter his ‘Failure Resume’—a list of “degree programs I did not get into”, the “academic positions and fellowships I did not get”, and the “paper rejections from academic journals”. Sheryl Sandberg, a self-appointed role model for women in business—known as much for her career bible Lean In as she is for her role as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer— says that honest examination of mistakes is essential to the technology company’s success.
“We’ve tried really hard to learn from failures, learn from mistakes, and build it into our culture. Every year our management team takes a trip to an organisation we can learn from. We know we’re a young company and we have a lot to learn,” she says.
What both Tupperware, founded back in 1948, and 21st-century tech giant, Facebook are doing is creating a culture of what Harvard Professor Amy Edmunson calls “psychological safety”. Failure is transformed into progress, her research has found, when rather than being penalised for making mistakes, employees are encouraged to openly admit and discuss their errors. Her many investigations into workplaces including Toyota, Prudential and GM indicate that encouraging open dialogue around failure actually leads to fewer mistakes. As The Best Place To Work author Ron Friedman says, “The best way to minimise failure is to embrace it with open arms.”